The Washington Spirit’s NWSL playoff hopes are hanging by a thread, and to stay in the race, they need to beat the North Carolina Courage tonight at the Maryland SoccerPlex. That is to say, they need to win against the defending champion, two-time defending NWSL Shield winning Courage, a team that has won every single meeting between the sides, including preseason games. Oh, and while the Spirit were sweating it out in Houston Wednesday, NC was at home, preparing for this game.
So yeah, times are tough, but no one ever said the fight to become one of the league’s best teams was gonna be easy.
Key player: Ashley Hatch
So much is made of the Courage’s relentless press, their 100mph style of play, and their attacking weapons that we tend to forget how hard they are to score on. NC has given up just 19 goals this season, the best figure in the league, and their history against the Spirit is littered with shutouts.
Obviously no one player is going to be expected to go out and solve the Courage defense on her own, but it’s safe to say that the best looks are most likely going to fall to Hatch. Against her old club, the Spirit’s leading scorer is going to have to bring a little bit of everything: good hold-up play to involve runners from underneath, smart runs through the channels to stretch the field, and when the chances do come, she’s got to be clinical, because even a great attack tends to only carve out a handful of looks against North Carolina.
Location: Maureen Hendricks Field at Maryland SoccerPlex (Boyds, MD)
Kickoff time: 7:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (433) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Megan Crosson; Meggie Dougherty Howard, Andi Sullivan, Rose Lavelle; Mal Pugh, Ashley Hatch, Cheyna Matthews
Bench: Shae Yanez, Amy Harrison, Cali Farquharson, Chloe Logarzo, Jordan DiBiasi, Crystal Thomas, Arielle Ship
Lavelle is said to be a sure starter after a combination of her path to full fitness, a start last weekend, and a whirlwind trip to Italy kept her out Wednesday. Dougherty Howard is back from suspension, so look for them to join Sullivan as the midfield trio. Along the front line, expect Matthews to start as well, rotating in for Thomas.
Elsewhere, Crosson (or possibly Harrison) feels like a probable starter at left back after Farquharson was said to be under the weather during the mid-week draw in Houston. We may see more rotation due to the clearly draining conditions from that game, which could mean moves like Harrison at right back or Lavelle as a forward (with DiBiasi in the midfield and Hatch rotated out).
Projected Courage starting 11: (4222) - Steph Labbé; Heather O’Reilly, Abby Dahlkemper, Abby Erceg, Jaelene Hinkle; Denise O’Sullivan, McCall Zerboni; Crystal Dunn, Debinha; Jess McDonald, Lynn Williams
Paul Riley’s mantra is famously “#NoFinishLine,” so despite the fact that they clinched the NWSL Shield, don’t expect the Courage to rest anyone they don’t have to rest. O’Reilly figures to be the replacement for Merritt Mathias (ACL) for the rest of the year, and the rest of the lineup is healthy save for Mewis (questionable with a knee issue). She’ll play if she can, but it seems more likely Riley will hold her in reserve due to the fact that he has Zerboni and O’Sullivan battling to be the playoff starter next to her in this box midfield set-up.
Kristen Hamilton is out with a foot injury, but she might not even be first choice on this team due to the presence of Williams and McDonald up top.
Referee: Ismir Pekmic
Available TV: NBC Sports Washington
Available streaming: Monumental Sports Network, Yahoo (domestic). That link will take you to Yahoo’s NWSL stream page, where this game should be the first option on the list.
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
What are you drinking?: Cold brew coffee en route, press box bottled water at the Plex. These are my traditions now.
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